This past week I attended an Aspen Words three day Reader’s Retreat led by Susan Lehman. I feel most fortunate that Aspen Words has become a partner with AspenRealLife, for they are the organization I have been needing to align myself with to propel me back into the stimulating world of literature. Aspen Words is going to help to resuscitate that luxurious addiction.
Aspen Words Retreat with NY Times Editor, Susan Lehman
As I floated in a windless sky over Snowmass in a hot air balloon I worried. Perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea to pack my day so fully. It dawned on me, as we moved inch by inch away from the targets that we were supposed to hit, that my propensity for lateness was dragging my integrity down to a place I was no longer comfortable with. I willed the balloon down and with bitter sweet sentiment I declined the champagne and raced off to draw out my quite latent intellect.
Upon entering the room of the retreat in the Aspen Institute’s Doerr-Hosier Center, I tried to turn as invisible as possible so as not to disturb the 21 people seriously engaged in literary conversation, and wedged myself into one of the black leather conference swivel chairs next to somebody of whom I admire greatly, but for privacy’s sake won’t mention the name. Leaning into him slightly I gave him as charming an apologetic smile as I could for my disruption.
The decision to take this Reader’s Retreat in the midst of AspenReaLife’s take-off was intentional. I have been so focused on work that I have neglected to do the thing that enhances my work most, read.
As the conversation ensued I sank deeper into the pillowed seat. I was out of my league with this literary group who seemed to inhale books and information at a rate beyond my DNA capacity. The retreat leader, Susan Lehman, editor of the Times Insider and host to that section’s “Inside the Times” podcast series, was guiding everyone through an analytical discussion of the assigned essays. I was quiet for once in my life, absorbing the conversation as they discussed authors such as; Colum McCann, an Irish writer of literary fiction; George Orwell, known for his keen intelligence and wit, profound awareness of social injustice, an intense opposition to totalitarianism; Joan Didion, the great chronicler of the 60’s; Nora Ephron, an American Journalist whose motto was that “Everything is copy” — that all life events, no matter how embarrassing, sordid or tragic, supply material for a writer; David Rakoff, “conscious and attentive”; David Foster Wallace with his unparalleled detail; Norman Mailer, changing journalism; and Ta-Nehisi Coates, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, where he writes about cultural, social and political issues, particularly as they regard to African-Americans.
Susan was an excellent leader, asking questions that drew the attention to the pacing and style of the essays and to the big picture.
- Does the motive matter?
- What are the signifiers?
- Is it a universal message?
- Do you think this piece could have been edited?
- Do you think this is a hopeless essay?
- What do you think matters to the writer?
As intimidating as I was when I first walked into the room, the questions asked by Susan, her curiosity for the written word and her historical knowledge of writers, made for her to be an excellent moderator. More interested in the big story over the minute details she inspired deep contemplation of the essays, all which had a common thread of blending the tiny and the epic. Her warm and gracious intellectual presence dissolved my reluctance to join in on the conversation which flowed nicely do to her ability to keep us focused on the discussion while still allowing us to read our favorite excerpts and analyze the words and sentence structures.
As we sat there in that room with windows framing the majestic fall colors changing to gold with each passing second, I was inspired by those in the class and incited to charge back into the world of words, and to deepen my connections with those of whom I have been writing about.
Now we have no excuses and will do the best we can to attend as many of their retreats, workshops, readings and seminars as we possibly can — to think of all that we have missed thus fills us with regret for not being more proactive.
Aspen Words Programs
Summer Words: one of the top writing conferences and literary festivals in the nation
Winter Words: bringing the most-respected contemporary writers to read and speak in Aspen
Writers in Residence: month-long writing retreats for established and emerging writers
Young Writers: reaching and inspiring middle and high school students throughout the Roaring Fork Valley
Aspen Writers’ Network: connecting local writers, while providing craft and publishing resources
The Editing Room: editing services from top publishing industry professionals
Story Swap: a story-sharing experience that uses creative writing to build empathy and understanding between diverse populations
** Aspen Words will host another 3-day Readers’ Retreat February 22-24. More info<http://www.aspenwords.